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Robin Bissell: An Unexpected Path to the Director’s Chair

Robin Bissell and Taraji P. Henson on set of The Best of Enemies (2018).

Movies are the creation derived from the dreams, inspiration, ideas, and hard work of countless minds and hands. If you stay at the end of each movie as the credits begin to roll, you’ll get a glimpse of just how many people it really does take to bring a movie to life. The name Robin Bissell might not sound entirely familiar to the casual movie fan, and it might even elude some of the more self-declared cinephiles, but without a doubt it is a name you’ll want to follow in the Hollywood industry.

Have you ever heard of Pleasantville (1998), or Seabiscuit (2003)? How about The Hunger Games (2012)?—only the third highest grossing movie at the domestic box office in 2012, grossing over $408 million. Bissell served as an associate producer and executive producer (respectively) on all three of these films (among others). But Bissell’s path to Hollywood was an unexpected one to say the least.

Bissell’s upbringing exposed him to theater and plays, but it was at the end of his freshman year at the University of Maryland that Bissell discovered his ability to write music. This discovery inspired him to drop out of college during his sophomore year and head west to Los Angeles in pursuit of a career in either music or acting, both equal passions of his. Friends and family admonished him to choose one and focus on that—and he chose singing/song writing. Bissell was able to form a band and land a record deal with A&M Records, only to see that deal nullified once PolyGram bought out A&M Records. This didn’t stop Bissell and his band, Everything, from pursuing their love of music and playing shows all over town.

Robin Bissell, co-lead singer of the band Everything, playing a show in 1995.

After a few years of playing music, Bissell felt ready for a change; a new adventure of sorts. Bissell’s love of film had never diminished, and ultimately, it was Bissell’s connections that he had made through music that landed him an opportunity in the film industry. Bissell’s friend, agent Melanie Ramsayer, lined him up an interview as an assistant to a movie writer who was about to direct his very first film. This new director had fired his last three assistants, and Bissell went in to interview for the opening. Even after being warned at how awful this assistant position was going to be, Bissell persisted and never wavered during the interview. When the interview concluded and Bissell was making his way to back to his car, he realized he had forgotten to ask for a script of this new movie. So Bissell went back into the building only to run into the new director himself, Gary Ross, who then hired him on the spot. This new movie being made was Pleasantville, starring Jeff Daniels, Reese Witherspoon, and Tobey Maguire.

(Left to right) Robin Bissell, Reese Witherspoon and Paul Walker on set of Pleasantville (1996).

Bissell’s hiring came two months before principal photography began for Pleasantville, and with no experience and no idea how to actually do his job, Bissell became a sponge, soaking up as much knowledge as he possibly could. He worked long hours and took on more responsibilities, and during the extensive fifteen-month post-production of Pleasantville (while other producers left to take care of other projects), Bissell picked up the slack and made his worth known to Gary Ross as well as others; Ross ended up making Bissell an associate producer for Pleasantville.

And thus began his new journey in Hollywood.

Bissell would go on to be hired as a full-time producing partner for Gary Ross and Larger Than Life Productions, and would be part of the making of such films as Seabiscuit, The Tale of Despereaux (2008), and The Hunger Games. When Comcast bought Universal Studios back in 2010, they ended up buying out the contract that Universal had with Larger Than Life Productions. Gary Ross, Bissell, and co. were still able to make The Hunger Games, whose financial success allowed Bissell the flexibility to set off on his own in pursuit of a project he had been thinking of making for a number of years.

Sam Rockwell and Robin Bissell on set of The Best of Enemies (2018).

It was back in 2005 that Bissell came across an article in Time Magazine about two individuals back in the 1970’s that were on opposing sides of civil rights activism occurring in Durham, NC; Ann Atwater, a Black woman and civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis, a White man and president of the KKK chapter in Durham, NC. This story grabbed Bissell’s attention, and years later would end up being the passion project that put him in the director’s chair of his very own movie titled, The Best of Enemies (2019). This story is explored in detail on episode 110 of the Backseat Directors Podcast. Bissell’s journey from college drop-out, to musician, to an assistant, to associate producer, to executive producer, to a writer and director of his own movie was likely the most unexpected journey he could have imagined. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Bissell’s career is to follow your heart. Even if the path before you is uncertain and obscure, the only way to know is to take that leap and move forward. I encourage all readers to listen to the rest of his story and learn more about the man, and the movie fan, Robin Bissell.

“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
About the Author
Founder of Backseat Directors. Host of The Backseat Directors Podcast, and The Mega Movie Show! Continually surprised that he's getting older and not forever 24. Quit the corporate life to pursue his passions and spend more time at home. Grateful for the talented team at Backseat Directors, and for all the incredible work they do. Lover of movies, the BYU Cougars, Amy Jane and Groucho. Let's go to the movies!

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